Power to the young people: emerging climate leaders attend VERGE 19

GreenBiz Emerging Leaders at VERGE
Kathryn Cooper

Last week, TIME Magazine named 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg the 2019 Person of the Year.

The power of young people to galvanize public opinion and spur mass action against climate change is unprecedented at this point in time. Of course, solving the biggest global problem of our time requires all hands on deck. Thunberg may be a young advocate from Sweden leading school strikes for climate, but countless other activists of color are fighting for the environment and for the future, from the indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock to the students standing against environmental racism in Flint, Michigan. 

At GreenBiz, we know that. And that’s why connecting passionate young people from diverse backgrounds with corporate changemakers, cleantech innovators and public sector planners is critical to the success of the climate movement.

At GreenBiz Group's October conference VERGE 19, the Emerging Leaders program, sponsored by United Airlines, hosted students and early-career professionals to find mentorship, insight and career opportunities. Now in its third year, the scholarship program offers all-expenses paid trips and conference passes to youth sustainability leaders whose voices wouldn’t necessarily be represented in the room. 

"We take pride in our own diverse family at United Airlines and continue to be encouraged by the bright, motivated, next generation of leaders who will work together to build a more sustainable future," said Rohini Sengupta, manager of environmental affairs at United Airlines.

We asked each Emerging Leader how attending VERGE 19 helped them learn about the sustainable business career path, from navigating to overcoming the barriers that exist for them and their peers.

Want to be an Emerging Leader at GreenBiz's next conference? Apply here.

The answers below have been edited for clarity and brevity.

David Saul Acosta, International Relations Master's Student at Harvard University

David Saul Acosta
David Saul Acosta
I was fascinated by all the progress stakeholders of the burgeoning green economy had been able to advance and achieve in the recent past. We truly are on the cusp of a great leap forward — with green, clean and sustainable products and services leading the way towards a more hopeful, equitable and prosperous future for all. 

The clean economy is applicable to my life and those of who I love and interact with given the great promise and potential it has to transform our lives for the better. The collective well-being of humanity will be better off if stakeholders in both the public and private sector work together to advance bold, forward-thinking ideas and solutions for green economics to take form in our complex, modern global economy. When we, as economic players, reward and value stakeholders who advance green economics — we, as an interconnected global society, will all be better off. 

It was a memorable experience and one that I’ll never forget because of the way it made me feel: ever hopeful of a world in which the best ideas trump misguidance and apathy towards climate action and common sense. 

Summer Mia Bain, Energy Engineering Student, Georgia Tech

Summer Mia Bain
Summer Mia Bain
Being chosen as an Emerging Leader for VERGE 19 was an amazing experience. For the first time in my life, I was able to fellowship with like-minded peers about the future of sustainability and energy usage. Over the last three years, I have worked in energy consulting for small and medium-sized manufacturers in the state of Georgia. Evaluating our energy usage and implementing green solutions in manufacturing is critical for the future of engineering.

VERGE 19 was an incubator where I was able to learn about startups, businesses and people like myself who are working on tomorrow’s issues today. This conference showed me that sustainability can no longer be a niche market and is crucial for businesses to compete and thrive in tomorrow’s economy, sustainability and circularity.

Christian Cannon, Mechanical Engineering Student, University of Michigan 

Christian Cannon
Christian Cannon
Creating innovative solutions to accelerate a clean economy and mitigating climate change are global issues that impact everyone. I have utmost gratitude towards obtaining the opportunity to attend VERGE 19 as an Emerging Leader Scholar. I enjoyed learning about how to design a more sustainable planet through the implementation of businesses with green initiatives, advanced renewable energy development and the circular economy. We are environmentally responsible to "be the change that we wish to see" by trailblazing a legacy to enhance the planet that will live beyond our biological years. I am currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan, where I explore my passions of strengthening communities through renewable energy and sustainable development.

I am ecstatic to utilize the knowledge and relationships I obtained from VERGE 19 to continue executing social justice community projects through my elected position of Sustainability Commissioner for the City of Ypsilanti. My future endeavors focus on helping improve underserved communities by designing sustainable systems to enhance the accessibility of renewable energy, clean drinking water, and hydroponics. It is extremely motivating to witness how countless individuals take personal responsibility to advocate for climate change through unified action and education. The priceless conversations I had with industry leaders from VERGE 19 reinforced my ambitions of designing a sustainable planet and provided me with new ideas on how I can become involved with current efforts.  

Valeree Catangay, Sustainability Intern, Dolby Laboratories

Valeree Catangay
Valeree Catangay
At VERGE 19, it was motivating to see how people turn bold ideas into real, actionable solutions. The conference equipped me with resources that will amplify my work in supporting Dolby's new and growing sustainability initiative. I not only learned from, but also directly participated in discussions around integrated energy strategy, the carbon offsets market and circular design, to name a few.

The most inspiring part for me was the final panel. Youth climate leaders highlighted that we are not going to get very far without prioritizing those at the frontlines directly dealing with issues of environmental pollution and injustice. As both a climate justice activist and early sustainability professional, it's exciting that young people are driving the movement towards a clean economy.

Andrea Mauro, Environmental Studies Student, University of Southern California

Andrea Ramos
Andrea Ramos
The conference was valuable not only in providing me with the space to converse with change-makers who are profoundly engaging in developing resilient and regenerative systems at scale which precisely aligns with my aspirations, but it also heavily applied to the work that I am doing at my university. This educational institution disperses thousands of leaders into a variety of fields every year, and therefore ensuring that every graduate has a comprehensive understanding of what to look for and what to change with regards to the sustainability in their particular field is pressing.

In effect, the forward-thinking conversations and workshops that took place at VERGE are not taking place in these nursery habitats and must be infused across the spectrum of disciplines that truly all have sustainability at their backbone. This is precisely linked to the program I am spearheading at USC. As a low-income first-generation Latina, the transition to a clean economy is directly applicable to my life, and VERGE helped me see the energy that is seeking to re-recognize our place within the patterns of living systems. While technological "progress" has assisted in shaping the human psyche in many ways that further separate individuals from the natural world, VERGE reinvigorated my optimism that these tools and our collective foresight can be used to remind us of our past, understand interconnections and create models that are based upon a more holistic involvement of stakeholders.

Anastasiya Poplavska, Environmental Studies Student, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Anastasiya Poplavska
Anastasiya Poplavska
I realized how much of the development in cleantech permeates the industries I encounter in everyday life. When it comes to things like fashion — and specifically the fast fashion industry — breakthroughs in creating a circular supply chain are coming fast to change the status quo and how we perceive what this industry really looks like; the same goes for what we used to think about procurement of energy. Developments like community choice energy — which are springing up all over in different counties, gaining traction — show the power a community has when it comes to lowering its emissions. Also, learning about how Google is currently using its deep learning technology and data to help track the deforestation in the Amazon has shown me the value that collaboration has when it comes to acceleration a clean economy. So many amazing technologies are already available to us, and continue to grow in this space. That's the beauty of this movement — that we are in the midst of it all, and VERGE19 showed me the power all these unique developments have in our everyday lives (in both the macro, and the micro of things).

Sustainability is a huge part of my life as a student. I'm currently an environmental activist, I work at a cleantech startup, and my major is centered around environmental studies. I got to connect with and learn from incredible professionals within the sustainability space, while expanding my network and getting the knowledge I need to come back to campus and grow in the positions I currently hold. Plus, the students that also came to VERGE are incredible. I honestly feel so inspired by the work that they're doing, and I hope to carry the contagious energy they gave me back to campus as well.

Danicole Ramos, Government Affairs Analyst, Elemental Excelerator

Danicole Ramos
Danicole Ramos
In my work, I am continually trying to find ways to bridge the gap between cleantech innovation in Hawai‘i and public policy. Hawai‘i has strong public support for its clean energy goals. However, clean energy projects sometimes face resistance from the local community for fear of exploitation. This resistance stems from generational trauma of previous outside entities coming into the islands profiting on the backs of the local community.

At VERGE, it was nice to see like-minded members share their learnings from work they have done in different regions and how they engaged the public. I learned that frontline communities most impacted by climate change must be involved in the clean economy movement at every stage. We must ask them first what they want before we try to implement any cleantech innovation, no matter how impactful that tech might be. This engagement requires reaching out to groups that the clean economy needs support from, like unions. I return to work with more enthusiasm for all the cleantech innovations out there that realizes the clean economy. However, I'm reminded by the passion of my fellow emerging leaders that social change is intersectional. I have a broader lens to contribute more to a clean economy and make it available to everyone in my state.

Jean Marie Uwimana, Economics, Computer Science, and Mathematics Student, University of Southern Indiana

Jean Marie Uwimana
Jean Marie Uwimana
Growing up in the Tongogara refugee camp in Zimbabwe, I believed and was inspired by the motto, “They took away my home, but they cannot take away my future.” I found hope in the future I could only achieve, at the time, in my imagination. I continue to fight, and I am driven to achieve that bright future for myself, my family and for the next generation.

However, the current high carbon emission threatens that imaginary future for my generation and the next to come. VERGE 19, like a compass, pointed me in the right direction and even better, upgraded me from a civilian boat to a destroyer. Now, I am ready to cruise my destroyer and find a way to achieve my imaginary future of a clean and sustainable economy. It reminded me to be bold, to be fearless, to collaborate, to embrace the diversity of ideas, and be focused on the mission.

Although it was disappointing to learn that we are "behind schedule" on our clean energy mission, it was a relief and confidence booster to be assured that we have the right team, the resources, and the right leadership to get the mission done.

Shubhankar Upasani, Co-op, Product Development Sustainability, Kohler Co.

shubhankar upasani
Shubhankar Upasani
Attending VERGE 19 was a unique experience for me as I met professionals in the sustainability space working on a wide diversity of subjects yet with a common goal in mind. As ideas and solutions were exchanged, the things that stood out to me were the need to seek out unlikely collaborations and communicating both success and failure in a transparent and engaging manner.

Moreover, the slow yet sure transition to adopting nature-based climate mitigation strategies was a key takeaway to integrate into the work I do.

Want to be an Emerging Leader at GreenBiz's next conference? Apply here.